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Watchdog: The Texas school district that forgot to hold elections for a decade

July 22,2016 20:18

The complaint was passed on to a new special investigations unit of the Texas Education Agency. Investigators found a complete breakdown of democracy. (Here is their official report.) When nobody wanted to challenge incumbents, elections were canceled.and more »


They teach the history of American democracy in the tiny Sidney ISD in central Texas, but the superintendent and school board didn't live those lessons. The district did not hold an election for a decade. Board members extended their own terms.The strange case of Sidney school district's decade-long spree without an election has never been told publicly. Even most taxpayers in Comanche County, where the district with only one school campus is situated, don't know the story.It began with an improbable anonymous complaint to the State Auditor's office about a school district that forgot democracy. The complaint was passed on to a new special investigations unit of the Texas Education Agency.Investigators found a complete breakdown of democracy. (Here is their official report.) When nobody wanted to challenge incumbents, elections were canceled. That's allowed, but a district and candidates must file the proper paperwork. Records are important.Nobody on the school board knew when their terms expired. They told an investigator they kept asking Superintendent Doug Bowden, but he said he would get back to them.Some trustees thought they were serving two-year terms (not allowed under state law.) Others thought they served three- or four-year terms.It didn't matter. All the trustees were appointed to the school board and then stayed as long as they liked."I dropped the ball," Bowden told investigators.
"I dropped the ball," the school superintendent told investigators.ExcusesI talked to the superintendent last week. "It's not like we were running a monopoly and keeping someone from running," he said. "It's a small district and to be honest, it's hard to find six or seven people who are interested in being on the board."That, of course, is true. Texas has a whopping 1,024 school districts. It's always difficult to get people in sparsely-populated districts to serve in such a lengthy volunteer job that comes with lots of work, loads of grief and a loss of privacy. But that's the price of democracy.Yet every other district knows how to follow election law: file the proper paperwork, and if there are no contested races, only then can you cancel an election.Not in Sidney.When I asked Comanche County Clerk Ruby Lesley why she didn't pester the district to hold a proper election, she answered, "It's not my job to police. They're supposed to notify me when they're having an election."She told an investigator she hadn't legally certified a school board member since 2001.
Welcome to Sidney (pop. 318)"You could pretty much drive through Sidney and not know it," Superintendent Bowden says. The school campus and the post office are the mainstays. The district consists of one school campus for 140 students, K-12. Home of the Eagles.Sidney is about 10 miles from Comanche, and 160 miles southwest of Dallas. The district covers 80 square miles of Comanche County.Bowden works with the district's business manager (the only two administrators) out of a small tin building. The joint junior high/high school is nearby, along with an elementary school and athletic facilities."It's a different world when you're in a small school," the superintendent tells me. "If it gets done, we do it."He's been superintendent for a dozen years. Before that he was the junior high principal."In all the years of in-service training I've never seen an election workshop," he explains. "It would probably be a good thing if we had one, you know?"We do know. Fortunately, the Texas Education Agency ordered the district to hire an election attorney and hold a public hearing to disclose this embarrassment to the community. A conservator (or supervisor) will be appointed by the state Education Commissioner Mike Morath. None of that has happened yet.Surprisingly, the superintendent who dropped the ball gets to keep his job with no punishment or sanctions.Last year, the district held its first election in a decade. A notice seeking candidates are posted on a bulletin board in the high school lobby. The district's webpage permanently asks for candidates, too.Democracy isn't merely a lesson in a school room. It's who we are as a people.
Staff writer Marina Trahan Martinez contributed to this report.Twitter: @DaveLieberCheck out The Watchdog Mondays on NBC5 at 11:20 a.m. talking about matters important to youRead more about the new Texas Education Agency's Special Investigations Unit that handled this case here.Read the entire T.E.A. report on Sidney ISD here.
On Twitter: @DaveLieber

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A Texas school district that forgot democracy
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